Today in Michigan, no county jail is operated or managed by a private firm. That's not because the idea is a bad one, but only because out-of-date state laws effectively forbid this promising option to county officials. This is an unfortunate situation because the evidence that "corrections privatization" works is piling up in other states.
At the present time, over-crowding in Michigan's correctional facilities has reached the point where it threatens the very foundations of the state's criminal justice system. Much media attention has focused on state prisons; too little attention has been paid to the problem at the level of a more fundamental component of criminal justice, the county jail.
Operated by the county sheriff, the county Jail stands closest to the people and is, therefore, more directly subject to the will of citizens as they exercise their power to vote sheriff candidates in or out of that office. Nonetheless, over-crowding in the state's prisons has caused judges to impose jail sentences on criminals whose crimes would ordinarily have required their being sent to prisons. As a result, county jails around the state have been burdened with too many assigned inmates. Additionally, their costs and character have been dramatically affected by virtue of the types of people now assigned to them in short-term efforts to relieve the numbers problem at, the prisons.
Virtually every observer of the scene predicts that taxpayers will have to accept higher taxes to finance expansion of county jail space. However, not, even the Michigan Sheriffs Association really knows how much it: actually costs – in terms of the scarce economic resources absorbed by the jail system – to build and operate county Jails in Michigan! Results from MSA surveys indicate that those who are directly responsible for operating jails do not, in fact, know what it really costs and National Institute of Justice surveys strongly suggest that: under government operation, prison and jail construction and operating costs throughout the nation are routinely underestimated. While there are many reasons for this lack precision in government's assessment of cost – none of which have to do with the suggestion that sheriffs and jail administrators will fully fudge the figures – this much is abundantly clear: the costs (in both time and money) at building and operating jails under traditional government techniques in Michigan is enormous and growing.
A private sector corrections industry in America is now well-established. It has developed a documented track record for Wilding and operating minimum, medium and now maximum security facilities at costs well tinder the lowest best estimate of public sector costs. Unlike government: entities, private, for-profit firms must know and account, for all costs. With the bid prices on which they contract with county governments as a given," the private firms then earn a profit only to the extent that they operate facilities in ways that most, efficiently use resources and discourage disruption by inmates. A poorly-run jail is a costly jail and a well-run jail can be a profitable one. Unique to the private sector are the "bottom line" incentives which have led private firms to provide both a humane environment and a low-cost operation. In Tennessee and Florida and a number of other states where this is underway, the beneficiaries of corrections privatization have been taxpayers, county government, the inmates themselves and the private companies involved.
The nation's oldest and largest private corrections firm operates many facilities across the country and is providing service at least as good and at substantial, proven savings over what governments do the job for. Experience suggests that the full range of privatization options would offer many benefits in Michigan as well Facilities could be built faster and smarter. Methods for evaluation, accountability and control would be stronger. Politically unpopular bonding issues and tax hikes could be alleviated. Moreover, conditions are now such in Michigan's jails that there is virtually no way private sector involvement – properly implemented – could do worse than is now the case in the state. Michigan should take advantage of, the growing number of successful private firms in this field arid the new body of cost-effective techniques and technology those firms are generating.
Objections being raised to corrections privatization here are essentially the same as those already successfully handled in other states. Without undermining the legitimate role of government in determining the demand for imprisonment – including sentencing and certain standards within the facilities – privatization can become an effective arrangement in Michigan to resolve the problems of supply and operation. It's time to clear away the obstacles and allow this option for county governments in Michigan.
This Executive Summary is based on a Mackinac Center Report., "Jail Overcrowding in Michigan: A Public Problem with a Private Solution?" by Dr. Charles D. Van Eaton. Copies of the full 30-page report are available for $10.00 from the Center.
Copyright 1989 by The Mackinac Center. Nothing in this Executive Summary should be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any particular legislation before Congress or the state legislature.
Dr. Charles D. Van Eaton is a senior Policy Analyst with The Mackinac Center, a private, non-profit educational organization.